One of the several ways that the third Harry Potter book deviated from the first two (in addition to, for instance, not sucking) is that it had a bit of a cliff-hanger ending. The shoelace was tied, but the aglets were dangling. Consequently, I was looking forward to reading the fourth book, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire . The catch is, it's only out in hardcover so far, and the third book wasn't good enough to qualify Rowling for buy-in-hardcover status. So, I waited until I could bum the book off of Anne, and got a chance last weekend.
My conclusion, which I'll get out of the way up-front, is that with this volume, the Harry Potter books finally reach into the realm of actual goodness. The first book was cliched and dull; the second book was fun but trashy, the third book was actually decent, and the fourth book is firmly good. That's a nice pattern, and bodes well for the fifth book. Which, I might add, I'm now moderately awaiting, because this book ends on even more of an untied note than the third one. Argh.
Why's this book better than the previous three? I think it's because Harry's no longer a kid. I have a strong aversion to child protagonists, since it never makes sense for them to do anything important and the book always needs to present elaborate excuses for why adults aren't stepping in to take care of things. (For the most extreme form of this idiocy, witness the truly awful Star Trek fan fiction where the crew gets taken out and kids need to command the Enterprise. And if you're wondering why I know this, I read a MSTing of it (by Adam Cadre, the same guy who did the famous MSTing of "Eye of Argon", wrote the superb "Photopia" text adventure, and also wrote the surprisingly good high-school novel Ready, Okay!).)
In the fourth book, Harry's firmly a teenager, and he acts noticeably more grown-up. There is romantic interest (or, at least, an awareness of the possibility of romantic interest); there is a greater capacity for reflection and decision; there are a lot fewer inane "Well, I should tell Dumbledore, but I won't" plot devices; and most of the cutesy kids' book ornamentations that were introduced in the first book are downplayed by now. The silly made-up words, the mischievous-but-unthreatening ghosts, the Suessian candies -- they're still there, but they hardly matter any more. The series has evolved past a need for those kiddie props, so they still litter up the Potterverse, but they're just lying around now; the book (and Harry) no longer cares about them.
In other words, I'm starting to like this series of kids' books because it's ceasing to be one.